How to Modify Yoga Poses

One of the most interesting and practical things I've learned in the viniyoga approach to teaching classes is how to modify various yoga tools. From yoga poses, to breathing patterns and meditation, all the pieces can be adapted to the different needs of individuals, or to a theme you might choose for a group class.

Learning how to modify yoga poses is crucial for teachers because group classes usually spend more time on asana than on other parts of practice, and modifications make poses more safe, effective and meaningful.  Plus, if you're just starting out with adapting yoga to different needs, it's easiest to begin with yoga poses, because they are tangible, visible things that can be understood at a gross level.

When you are modifying any yoga tool, the key idea to keep in mind is that these tools have function. There are really no rules, and the lists of alignment principles (knees over ankles, arms shoulder-height, feet 3 1/2 feet apart and parallel, etc) can be thrown out the window, as long as you and your students are paying attention and preserving the function of the chosen yoga pose.

Begin by defining what function you are hoping to achieve, choose movements and modifications that you anticipate will get you there, and pay attention to the students as they practice so you can guide them and change things as needed.

From a wide-angle view, here's how you can modify yoga poses:

Flexibility/Movement

These days, most people associate yoga with increased flexibility, and yoga poses are certainly a very useful tool for changing patterns of movement. Most yoga poses are designed with the idea of lengthening in mind--forward-bending lengthens the back of the body, for example, and lateral-bending lengthens the side.

As you are planning your class, think about what areas of the body you want to create the feeling of movement in. This depends on the overall purpose of your class and your specific population.

If you've observed that a student has lower back stiffness, you might have him change the position of his feet or bend his knees in a forward-bending pose, so that you can bring a bit more movement to the low back. You could have him sit on a chair or bolster to give the back more freedom in seated poses.

If you notice your students have shortness of breath, you might create more room for breathing by having students lift their arms wider so the rib cage moves more freely. Or you could emphasize forward-bending postures that move the abdomen in on the exhale to encourage a fuller breath.

Strength/Stability

Of course, yoga poses are not only about increasing flexibility. Most students in group classes will need some focus on developing strength as well. In fact, the people attracted to yoga class and bendy poses most likely need the strengthening aspect.

Take care not to confuse strength with strain, though. You don't want your students to be pushing or forcing their bodies past the boundary of what is safe for them. The same is true in regard to flexibility. Help them find a steady balance where the breath flows smoothly. (This is the concept of sthira-sukham-āsanam, Yoga Sutra 2.46.) 

You'll find that most students are disconnected from their strength in at least some areas of their body. Look for the areas that move too freely or seem to collapse--perhaps the shoulders, or lower back, or wrists. Those are the places that can use stability. You can modify yoga poses to give students the experience of what strength or stability feels like in the areas.

You can think of increasing stability as restricting movement. So for students whose lower backs arch excessively in virabhadrasana, a focus on lengthening the tailbone down will stabilize the lumbar spine. For hypermobile shoulders, interlacing fingers when bringing the arms overhead will restrict shoulder movement and encourage upper back strength. In standing poses, changing the width of the feet can restrict movement in the hips, legs and ankles and build strength.

Stability can also come from an outside source, and using a prop can help build a student's connection to inner strength. You might have your students place their back heel against a wall for added support in virabhadrasana or parsvottanasana. Or have students place a hand or fingertip against a wall in balancing poses.

Once your students have a feeling for strength without strain, then you can build and challenge it. You can remove common props, and have your students to try standing poses without a yoga mat. And you can introduce longer stays in poses that require strength.

Gesture/Attitude

A more subtle way of modifying yoga poses is to cultivate a particular attitude in them.

Give it a try:

  1. Sitting as you are, take 5-6 breaths with your shoulders rounded forward, just to see what that feels like.
  2. Then take several breaths with your shoulders in a neutral position.
  3. Then in a rolled back, military-style position.

Notice the difference in how you feel in each posture. By adopting a different "attitude" in your shoulders, you can influence how you feel, and even how you think.

Gestures are ways that your body communicates to the outside world, but they also leave an imprint on your mood and memory. Smiling, for instance, not only communicates joy or friendliness to others, but it lifts your own mood as well.

By incorporating simple, subtle gesture into yoga poses, we can bring the effects of the practice to a deeper level. It can be the subtle difference between turning palms up or down in a seated position, or bringing your hands over your heart while resting instead of to your lap or your sides.

Take some time to observe yourself and others, and you'll notice so many gestures and small movements that say a great deal about what the person is feeling and thinking. You can begin to incorporate gestures into yoga poses to evoke the feeling.

Just be sure to keep it subtle. Let your students feel what they feel. Don't try to control it by telling them what they are supposed to feel. If you are asking them to open their arms out to the sides as they breathe in, don't say they are "opening their hearts to possibilities." Let their experience speak for itself. Learning is much deeper when it comes from personal experience and inner wisdom, rather than an outside source.

Other Elements

There are many other ways you can modify a yoga pose. You might use a visualization, or bhavana, to influence how your students do and feel a movement. You could ask your students to imagine moving through water, for example, to help them move more slowly and fluidly, or you could have them imagine a rising sun, or a full moon, or a mountain. As with gestures above, an image or idea can create different attitudes in movement, and it impacts the rest of your system.

You can use story and myth as well. One of my teachers began a class by telling a story about Ananta, the great serpent, to illustrate the concept of sthira/sukha. The image of the soft, heavy coils of the serpent's body and its strong, protective hood rising up was a powerful tool in communicating the idea of ease and stability.

Breath is, of course, a wonderful way to influence the effect of a yoga pose. It can be as simple as just noticing the breath, or imagining the breath move into or out of the body in a certain pattern. You could have students begin breathing just before the movement starts, so that the movement grows from the breath. Or students could count different parts of breath as they are moving or staying in a yoga pose.

I love introducing chanting or mantra in yoga poses. You can use a simple word or phrase (in Sanskrit or English) and ask the students to say it in their minds each time they come into the pose. Even just making a soft sound like "ahhh" brings the students to a more focused practice.

There is no end to ways you can modify yoga poses to make them a more personal and meaningful experience for your students, and to make them more than goals to reach, or an exercise to get through. Yoga poses have potential to enrich and harmonize the lives of your students. The teacher's role is to understand how they work, to see the impact they are having during practice, and to shape the practice and poses to serve their students best.